Steps towards (BILD-ing) a sense of belonging in Academia (by Krystina Raymond & Kai Forcey-Rodriguez)

For our last post of the 2022-2023 academic year, we are pleased to welcome two first-time BILD guest bloggers. Krystina Raymond (She/Her/Elle) is a, multiracial and multilingual, PhD candidate in Developmental Psychology and Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. She is very passionate about language learning, taught English as a second-language in Ahmedabad, India and currently teaches elementary students in bilingual programs in Montréal, QC. Krystina continues to be devoted to issues supporting bi/multilingual education, culturally responsive anti-bias practices and disseminating knowledge to support diverse students. Kai Forcey-Rodriguez (They/Them) is an autistic (savant areas in memory, music, and language learning), non-binary, multiracial, and queer person from the United States who recently graduated from the Developmental Psychology and Education MEd program in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto-OISE. One of Kai’s most notable accomplishments to this date is their scholarly work in the emerging field of Autism and Mental Health: creating frameworks to prevent suicide and nonsuicidal self-injury in Autistic people to foster well-being, through publishing their sole-authored debut, “The Risk Factors and Preventative Methods of Self-Harm and Suicidality of Autistic People”.

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

Born on different sides of life
We feel the same and feel all of this strife
So come to me when I'm asleep we'll cross the line
And dance upon the street
—” Through the Barricades” by Spandau Ballet (Through the Barricades [Album]-1986)

This is the journey of two racialized graduate students who met in the Spring of 2021 during a student support initiatives meeting. We instantly connected on the topic of intersectionality and our similar identities. With construction hats, tape measures, and a very large toolbox derived from our brilliant minds and creative ideas, we took steps towards BILD-ing a sense of belonging in academia at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).

Krystina (She/Her/Elle)

Born and raised in Montréal, Québec, to my mother, an immigrant of Indo-Caribbean descent from Guyana, and my father, a French Québécois settler, I was the first to pursue not only a university degree but to reach the doctoral level. My supportive parents, who spoke to me in different languages, had limited knowledge to share regarding academia, thus I felt isolated and disoriented when I began my post-graduate studies. As a first-generation, racialized, multilingual, cisgender woman, I found it burdensome to navigate this new and challenging academic journey at OISE in Toronto. Since the start of my doctoral studies in the department of Applied Psychology and Human Development (APHD), I felt underrepresented and isolated. My desire to feel a sense of connection and belonging within my new environment led me to seek opportunities to get involved in the graduate community.

My first call to action happened in March 2021. After attending a colloquium talk and student discussion with Dr. Roberts, I realized I was not the only multiracial scholar who felt these feelings and faced these challenges. Following the discourse, I contacted the chair of the APHD department and requested I speak at the faculty meeting to present my concerns and ideas to improve the graduate experience of racialized students. I received support from several of the faculty and University of Toronto members who were excited to get involved and plan equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives for racialized students. Since this meeting, 2021-2022 was the first school year the APHD department hired Black faculty members and added two courses specifically tackling issues of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Anti-racism, & Accessibility (IDEAA). Representation of racialized faculty and the opportunity to engage in courses related to identity have positively impacted graduate students’ learning experiences. Additionally, an IDEAA committee was founded that I am a part of, composed of faculty members and racialized students, which meets monthly to discuss shortcomings in the department. This is a critical opportunity for racialized students to have their voices heard and make a changing impact. Anonymous forms were created for racialized students to share their experiences and feedback with the department. This contributed to building a safer and more trustworthy graduate student community. Further, I was happy to be involved in hosting many EDI Scholar Lectures in a series to highlight the work of racialized scholars and bring forth diverse theories of research such as critical race theory (CRT). Ultimately, the momentum grew and APHD Racialized Students Group was founded specifically for racialized students to form relationships and feel empowered. There is rarely a space dedicated to us and I know our bi-weekly APHD Racialized Students Community Chats, among other events, has significantly improved the graduate students’ experience. This initiative led to the creation of the BIPOC Buddy program where mentors and mentees attend social events and meet independently to learn and support one another. I also proposed adding an IDEAA position to the graduate student association to provide students with the support that they need to be successful in graduate school. I was voted in by students of the department as the APHD Student Equity and Diversity Officer for the 2021-2022 school year and continue to serve graduate students who come forward with EDI related issues. To the best of my abilities, I will continue to advocate for an intersectional approach and understanding of APHD’s demographically diverse student body, to better serve the graduate student community. Altogether, I am grateful to have been recognized for my leadership as the Applied Psychology and Human Development Racialized Graduate Student Leader at OISE.

Kai (They/Them)

Born in New York City and raised in Durham, New Hampshire, USA, by my mother, a second-generation multiracial woman of Cuban, Spanish, and eastern European Jewish immigrant descent from the US, and my father, a third or fourth-generation person of Scottish, Irish, and Swedish immigrant descent from the US. Growing up in a family with a long history of academics or public-school teachers dating back at least three generations, I was born into an extremely studious atmosphere that paved the way for my current success at OISE and taught me how to navigate all levels of education systems since I was a toddler. My supportive parents’ extensive knowledge of the US education system and my family’s long history in social justice advocacy was another big element that is part of my success story, because I was diagnosed at age 7 with Autism and ADHD. In general, higher education is very inaccessible for neurodivergent and racialized people. Therefore, I am very lucky to have powerful advocates for parents teaching me essential skills and providing advice throughout my education journey.

However, my knowledge did not shield me from feeling isolated, disoriented, and disconnected as I began my master’s level studies as an international student who moved to Canada. Unbeknownst to me until course enrolment day, the majority of my program at the OISE would be online with nary a classmate living close by. It gets worse! Generally, universities view international students solely as golden Canadian geese opportunities from a financial standpoint. Therefore, I fell into that trap by being asked  to join a Master of Education program in which the majority of international applicants are accepted by the APHD Department. This program is structured as an introduction to psychology program, mainly geared to people unfamiliar with education systems in the United States or Canada or western psychology. In contrast, I have years of experience as a special educator and life/mental health support coach in North America, Europe, and Asia and had originally applied to the Clinical Counselling Psychology program (CCP), so I become a therapist for neurodiverse people like myself. Unfortunately, clinical programs only accept two or three international students at the master’s level. Therefore, I felt overqualified for my program and decided to own my learning to focus my work on my interests, which include neurodiversity/Autism and mental health from a clinical/therapeutic lens, to help me feel that I was getting my money’s worth.

This was exhausting, but I wanted to make the most out of my mainly online Canadian grad school experience. Closer to the end of my time at OISE, a Kai that was feeling very isolated in their own program, in their last semester at OISE (in-person) found a support system through friends in the APHD clinical programs, Social Justice Education (SJE), Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning (CTL), and Leadership Higher and Adult Education (LHAE) departments while maintaining one close friendship in their own program. This taught me how direly needed reestablishing the APHD community was. Therefore, the utilization of my 20 years of experience in social justice advocacy, 14 of which were focused on EDI work, and my desire to ensure all people are welcomed, included, celebrated, and feel safe in their learning environments, led me to seek opportunities to help with community building, after being online for so long.

In late March 2022, during a planning meeting with the APHD Student Association Exec. to set up my workshop about Autism and Mental Health, they advised me to consider running to be the next EDI Officer. Since being elected, we accomplished a lot together! We started by working with the APHD departmental IDEAA committee to expand upon the EDI agenda to include neurodiversity with an intersectional lens and ensure its representation, with great success. For example, the former special topics course about Autism got regularized, and faculty have become more curious about neurodiversity and well-being. Another achievement was that this year was the first time an IDEAA lecture included a neurodivergent scholar.

Furthermore, including minoritized students of all backgrounds with respect to mental health and well-being became an EDI issue, whereby we provided 250 hours of mental health support coaching to support student needs in addition to the continued provision of APHD Racialized Student Community Drop-In sessions. I facilitated my mental health support coaching sessions using Mindfulness Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Emotion Focused Therapy models to support students to notice, get curious, and honor their feelings so they could accept their instincts to be true (being the “observer” as stated in Mahayana Buddhism’s philosophy around spacious awareness in mindfulness and stress reduction therapeutic methods as noted in Watt, T. (2017) along with providing tools on how to productively negotiate their needs and promote collaborative discourse to bridge power dynamics between faculty and students. We also would unpack experiences collectively to build motivation, through learning self-validation and internalizing guilt-free self-talk around self-care and giving time by permission to be you for yourself (being Kai for Kai) during these sessions, using collaborative narrative therapy modalities. Afterward, I used my powerful memory (savant area as an autistic person) to build a database of student concerns to liaise and mediate mutually beneficial solutions with APHD leadership. Through this work, I have been recognized by students and faculty as a powerful student voice. I have also become renowned for promoting and modeling the art of slowing down to encourage everyone to get curious about solutions based on what the department has agency over. Utilizing this mindset and doing the work, we could move away from remaining stuck in place by exploring what is our basis of unity.

My recent accomplishments include being recognized with the APHD Student Recognition: Star Award whereby I was nominated by a large number of members from the APHD community for my extensive work in the department, helping spearhead an improved method of gathering student experiences to support the restructuring of APHD department programs to have a social justice lens and to ensure students are supported. I also served as an advisor to the current APHD student association president on EDI and departmental issues and joined with her as part of the team that succeeded in reviving the OISE graduate student association on March 18th, 2023.

Collectively, our impact on the APHD community has been massive. Through our collective efforts, we have succeeded in augmenting students’ sense of belonging and feeling seen and supported, while holding the department accountable for its responsibilities. In sharing our experiences as multiracial graduate students navigating academic institutions that were not built for people from diverse backgrounds, we hope this will open up critical discussions within academia to go beyond binary structures (e.g., white and black, female and male, etc.). Nourished by our journeys, we continue to anchor one another to remain purpose-driven in our work while learning to set boundaries. We encourage academics to celebrate and accept our differences, being mindful that we can uplift each other, as Marvin Gaye sang: ‘Together we stand, divided we fall’.


Watt, T. (2017). Spacious awareness in Mahāyāna Buddhism and its role in the modern mindfulness movement. Contemporary Buddhism, 18(2), 455–480.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *